Buck Privates (1941) review- Abbott and Costello finally make it big

If you’re trying to get a stubborn friend or family member to start watching older movies, I wouldn’t recommend starting them off with a comedy.

While all films are, in some way, influenced by the rapidly changing culture around them, comedies usually tap into something that is very unique to the specific time and place in which they were produced, more so than most other genres.

Plus, it goes without saying that what was once funny back in the day doesn’t always hold up to our [current year] sensibilities. I will never forget the first time I watched National Lampoon’s Animal House and was so confused when the filmmakers expected me to laugh at a scene where the joke basically boiled down to: BLACK PEOPLE ARE SCARY.

However, broad slapstick and clever wordplay usually breaks through these generational barriers, which is why comedy acts like the Bud Abbott and Lou Costello are still recognizable names to this day.

Even though this legendary duo starred in 36 features together, their first big hit came in 1941 with Buck Privates, a film that casts the two as sleazy con men who accidently enlist in the army during America’s peacetime draft.

As Abbott and Costello pratfall their way through basic training they also come into contact with a quirky cast characters, which includes a spoiled playboy and his former valet, who are fighting over the same woman, a disgruntled drill instructor, and a musical trio played by The Andrews Sister, who serve as a kind of Greek chorus for the developing plot.

Now, when it comes to reviewing comedies, most flowery analysis about things like cinematography, pacing, and structure can be thrown out the window in favour of one simple question: “is the movie funny?” And when it comes to Buck Privates, the answer is (mostly) “yes.”

Abbott and Costello’s act might be in its infancy on screen in 1941, since this is only their second film as a team, but their classic “skinny straight man-fat buffoon” routine is already very polished after years performing on stage and on the radio together.

The duo’s chemistry is so on-point that they even managed to make me chuckle at a reoccurring bit about math and probability, which is something I never thought possible for someone as allergic to numbers as myself.

And despite the fact that a lot of the scripted jokes are pretty corny, the two still managed to generate some pretty consistent laughs through sheer delivery alone, which is the true litmus test for any great comedian.

The Andrews Sisters also inject the film with a nice bit of musical variety, since they perform their hit songs like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “(I’ll Be With You) In Apple Blossom Times” to punctuate every major story beat.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers did not entirely play to the movie’s strengths, since they  dedicated a lot of screen time to the dull love triangle featuring some satellite characters who wouldn’t be out of place in a daytime soap opera.

Maybe it’s because Abbott and Costello had yet to prove themselves as big box office draws in 1941 and the studio was trying to hedge their bets with two conventionally attractive leading men, but whenever the story cuts back to the boilerplate alpha males it seems like we’ve switched to a completely different movie.

The comedy duo doesn’t even factor into the film’s war games climax, which really downgrades them to the status of comedy sidekicks rather than protagonists you want to get behind.

Another thing worth noting is how this film is a pretty transparent recruitment tool to encourage movie-goers of the time to enlist in the US peacetime draft.

Unlike another WWII era propaganda film I reviewed earlier this year, Commandos Strike at Dawn, the filmmakers try to accomplish this feat by making the army look like a outdoorsy vacation spot instead of a dangerous environment where you get to prove your worth as a man.

I’m not necessarily saying this approach hurts the movie in any significant way, but I definitely noticed the sheer amount of scenes that would emphasize how the military is a great place to meet women, eat ice cream, and kill time playing dice with your buddies.

But then again, this movie was selling itself as a light comedy, so maybe writing jokes about amputated limbs and shell shock would have been too much for a 1941 US audience that hadn’t experienced the horrors of World War II just yet.

Ultimately, while Abbott and Costello would go on to star in better movies with higher production values, Buck Privates is still worth watching to catch a glimpse of the comedy duo’s first big break on screen.

It also serves as a good reminder of physical comedy’s universal appeal, since someone getting tripped up by their own loose pants is funny no matter what generation you were born into.

Verdict:

6/10

Corner store companion:

Raisin Bran cereal (because the little sugary bits make the surrounding blandness tolerable)

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Fun facts:

-Original release date: Jan. 11, 1941.

-Budget: $180,000 (estimated)

-Box office gross: $4 million

-In addition to signing up for an official sequel in 1947, Buck Privates Come Home, Abbott and Costello would go on to star in two other service comedies that highlighted different branches of the military. These includes In the Navy and Keep ‘Em Flying, which were both released later that same year.

-The Andrews Sisters co-stared with Abbott and Costello in a total of three feature films.

-On IMDB, The Andrews Sisters are listed as a trio in addition to having separate acting profiles.

-This film scored two Academy Awards nominations for Best Score and Best Original Song (“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”).

-According to film scholars, the Japanese military showed their troops clips from Buck Privates to demonstrate how incompetent the US army was during World War II.

-Musical highlight: “(I’ll Be With You) In Apple Blossom Times” (because “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” has already gotten enough shine).

Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942) review- Uncle Sam gets creative with his recruitment techniques

The 1940s was truly a golden age in terms of Hollywood produced war propaganda.

Not only would these productions play as cartoons or documentary shorts before the beginning of a feature film, but sometimes they would take the form of the main attraction itself.

This can even be seen through a screen classic like Casablanca, which was made entirely to capitalize on America’s decision to enter the Second World War and reassure the US public that their government had made the right decision.

John Farrow’s Commandos Strike at Dawn, released at the very tail end of 1942, operates on that very same logic, since its plot and characters are meant to serve as an stand-in for America’s transition from neutrality to outright involvement in the Allied war effort.

In this film, the role of audience surrogate doesn’t go to Humphrey Bogart but Paul Muni, who plays a mild-mannered Norwegian fisherman whose sleepy village is taken over by the Third Reich in 1939.

While Muni’s character originally believes that the best course of action is to simply cooperate until the war blows over, he’s gradually pushed to violence after witnessing the atrocities committed by the Nazis and recruits a squad of British commandos to help liberate his home.

Now, when I use the term “propaganda” to describe this film, I don’t use it in an entirely negative sense. After all, I’m perfectly willing to stomach some ham-fisted messaging in my entertainment as long as the end product is well-made.

For example, even though Casablanca is a pretty transparent World War II allegory, it’s done with a certain level of sophistication and the film contains a pretty timeless love story that still strikes a cord with audiences to this day.

Unfortunately, the same really can’t be said for Commandos Strike at Dawn, since the filmmakers settle for cheap gimmicks that relegate the production to being simply a product of its time.

This kind of tone is established in the first couple seconds of the film, when the opening credits prominently display all the flags of the Allied powers, including the Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle. This kind of intro immediately dates the film, especially with the Cold War being right around the corner.

Even though there are times where the movie’s attempts to be timely do work out in its favour (like how the characters mention the persecution of Jews at a time when they were being slaughtered in concentration camps in real life) this kind of tacky filmmaking has way more misses than hits.

Although Muni is a compelling lead, he’s saddled with a lot of corny lines about how “nobody’s going to win the war for anybody else,” which sound like they are meant to lecture the 1942 audience rather than inform the movie’s characters.

The rest of the film’s cast is even more disposable.

Despite the fact that all the major players are given a long introduction through a fairly impressive tracking shot, most of them disappear halfway through the movie as the narrative focuses exclusively on Muni and his mission to coordinate a rescue operation.

The worst example of this is probably Muni’s love interest, who doesn’t affect the plot in any way and only seems to exist to reassure the audience that their protagonist has (if I may borrow a term from Red Letter Media) a “case of the not gays.”

The writers don’t even have the decency to provide us with a main antagonist, and settle for flooding the screen with a bunch of nameless German foot soldiers instead.

With that being said, the one segment of the cast who do manage to make an impression are the “British” commandos themselves.

The climactic clash between them and the Nazis feature some really impressive stunt work, which probably has something to do with the fact that they were played by real-life members of the Canadian Armed Forces.

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What’s even better is that director John Farrow compliments their military acumen with some good production decisions, since a lot of explosions are done in-camera and aren’t watered down by post-production trickery.

With that being said, basically none of these commandos are given personalities or even a single line of dialogue, which means it’s hard to get emotionally invested in this climax beyond admiring the pure spectacle of it.

And that’s probably the biggest problem with Commandos Strike at Dawn: it doesn’t know what it wants to be.

Sure, the filmmakers make a big show at the beginning about how they want to present an intimate character piece, but it’s clear by the final frame of the film that that’s all window dressing.

Instead, they’d much rather settle for showcasing flashy pyrotechnics and real-life military hardware, something that would have worked as long as they fully committed to this idea.

As a result, Farrow and his team fall victim to the classic filmmaking mistake of trying to make a movie for everyone, which inevitably means that they made a movie for no-one (especially by 2018 standards).

(Side note: it’s clear that the final climactic battle wasn’t shot in the early in the morning, but I guess “Commandos Strike at Mid-Day” wouldn’t have looked great on a movie poster.)

Verdict:

4/10

Corner store companion:

Bits & Bites Original (because it should have stuck to doing one thing, instead of mixing a bunch of stuff that doesn’t belong together).

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Fun facts:

-Release date: Dec. 30, 1942.

-Box office gross: $1.5 million (estimated).

-This film was nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture at the 1944 Academy Awards (the same year Casablanca won Best Picture).

-Paul Muni is probably best know for starring in the original Scarface from 1932, when the title character was an Italian gangster named Tony Camonte.

-Even though he’s kind of slumming it in this movie, Muni has five Oscar nominations for Best Actor under his belt, with an eventual win in 1937 for starring in The Story of Louis Pasteur.

-Unexpected cameo: Lillian Gish (a silent movie star best known for playing the pivotal role of Elsie Stoneman in the Birth of a Nation) makes her first screen appearance in almost a decade by portraying one the Norwegian villagers under Nazi siege.

-According to IMDB, the entirety of this film was shot on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.